There are some corners of the internet where they'll tell you that writer-director Ti West is just about single-handedly reviving the horror genre. That might be overstating things a little, or a lot - his cultishly adored The House of the Devil is a zesty, skillful pastiche, but to my eyes, it is never anything more than a pastiche - but this much is certainly, undeniable true: the man has a real gift for assembling familiar elements in familiar ways and still making movies that are fresh and interesting and not nearly as worn-out as they feel like they're supposed to be. And this brings us to The Innkeepers, about a pretty girl in a haunted hotel, which turns out to be a hell of a good ghost story and spooky campfire movie, with just enough depth of character and place that it's smarter than your average paranormal flick, and a significant improvement, to my eyes, on West's previous work.

It gets that way through the sublimely old-fashioned tactic of making sure the viewer is invested in the characters, giving us a lot of time to get to know them and like them before even a lick of paranormal activity kicks in. Hopefully like them, anyway: our two protagonists are very much indie movie characters of the modern tradition, disaffected creative class sorts who are a little bit (or a lot) too keyed-in to internet culture to feel like actual flesh-and-blood people, and I know that I am not alone in wishing the entire population would be banished from low-budget cinema forever and always. Still, the pair presented in The Innkeepers is a far better-than-average representation of the form: Claire (Sara Paxton), in her early twenties, is a college drop-out who doesn't know what she wants and has thus ended up getting nothing much at all, working as a desk clerk at a struggling hotel, the Yankee Pedlar Inn of Torrington, Connecticut (a real hotel, really said to be haunted, and really the filming location of this otherwise entirely fictional movie); her co-worker is Luke (Pat Healy), an even sadder case, for while Claire is still young enough that a certain amount of fucking up is perfectly okay, Luke, who looks to be on the wrong side of thirty (Healy has more than 16 years on Paxton), has pretty much dead-ended, and when the Yankee Pedlar closes its doors for good after this one last weekend, he's got pretty much no prospects. Which is the reason he's spent most of his time lately building a website to showcase the inn's famous ghost, Madeline O'Malley, and try to make a name for himself as a paranormal investigator.

Well over half of the movie consists of the most subdued kind of observational character drama: Claire and Luke, bored out of their minds with just two occupied rooms - over-the-hill TV mom Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), and the bitterly angry Gayle (Alison Bartlett), who has taken her son (Jake Schlueter) with her on an indefinite stay away from her husband - goof around with Luke's website, and make elaborate plans to go ghost-hunting, sharing a sound recording system and prosumer camera to hopefully catch Madeline in the act.

Indie movie clichés and all, this is actually pretty fantastic stuff, mostly because of how effortlessly natural the two leads are: Paxton gets more to do and thus it's easy to say that she's the more impressive, but really it's quite a terrific pairing, with the actors falling flawlessly into the rhythm of co-workers who are friends mostly because there's no other option to speak of, and Healy wonderfully evoking the sad-sack, much-too-old guy who does a terrible job of hiding the crush he has on a much-younger woman, mostly for the same reason: because he sees her constantly and there's nobody around. The film captures, flawlessly, the boredom of being a worker bee without being, itself, boring, thanks not just to the actors but to West's gratifyingly anachronistic enthusiasm for moving things slowly and letting scenes take as long as they have to in order to develop properly (this was, similarly, the best single thing about House of the Devil: it took its damn time instead of hectically trying to keep us shocked every 45 seconds).

I'll confess, in fact, that I was more than a little bit sad to see it all go away, when Claire's half of the investigation starts to bear fruit, in the form of piano music without anybody playing it, and a handful of glimpses of a decaying woman in a bridal dress (Brenda Cooney), presumably Madeline herself. At this point, The Innkeepers starts to slowly transition into a creepy noises and shock cuts movie - though a well-made one - that is less distinctive and thus less interesting than it started out, though West deserves all the credit in the world for leaving it open very nearly all the way to the end of the movie whether anything actually paranormal is happening, or if Claire just has an overheated imagination, fed by the new-agey treacle being spun by Leanne. And he deserves credit as well for restraint, going out of his way more than once to specifically not show us anything that will resolve the film's central tension one way or the other. And still more credit for allowing the mysteries of the Yankee Pedlar Inn to remain mysteries: much is implied but little is stated outright, and we perhaps know less at the movie's end than at it's beginning, in a delightfully creepy and disquieting way.

All that's great up to a point; the point is an ending that the film hasn't come even a little bit close to earning, so overreaching that it comes terrible close to ruining much of what the film had, till then, been doing so very well; I won't openly spoil it, except that it kills a character out of nothing but apparent meanness, in a way that isn't creepy but brutal, and which doesn't make any sense given our limited understanding of what's going on. The whole thing seems to be placed in the film solely to challenge us, "See what I'm willing to do?" To which I would answer, yes, you're willing to shoot your movie right in the damn foot. But up to that point, it's been a tasty enough genre exercise, and for that, Mr. West, I am thankful.

7/10